Santa Cruz YIMBY - A 2015 rendering of the vision for a new Pacific Avenue bus station with housing above.

Is YIMBY Movement Headed to Santa Cruz?

Planning commission avoids decisive action in heated meeting

A 2015 rendering of the vision for a new Pacific Avenue bus station with housing above. The City Council could pave the way for the plan when it considers downtown zoning rules in the fall.

[Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on future housing plans for the city of Santa Cruz. Part one ran last week.]

A crowd—mostly homeowners over 50—chuckled and guffawed when Adam Novak told the Santa Cruz Planning Commission, “I feel like I have a right to live and build a life here, too, just as much as the people who’ve been here for 30 or 40 years and already own homes. In pursuing that right, I’ve had to live in preposterous and frankly illegal housing situations because the availability of housing is so restrictive.”

It was the latest corridor rezoning meeting at the Santa Cruz Planning Commission to look at higher-density, mixed-use and generally bigger apartment buildings on the city’s busier streets—ideas that have proved controversial locally. The aim is to provide a boost to the Santa Cruz housing market.

“It’s not even the price,” Novak continued, backpack slung over one shoulder, glancing down at the notes on his phone. “You can afford the rentals, but when you show up, 30 other people are there, and one of them gets it before you. I think we need to build more housing. We need accessible housing, and tall buildings are one way to do that. I think tall buildings are not just automatically bad because they’re tall. You can build an ugly tall building, but you can build a beautiful tall building, too.”

After he finished, Novak walked quickly away from the podium, down a crowded aisle. Evan Siroky, a tall, slender software developer, stopped him, leaning over to whisper, “Hey, I’m trying to start Santa Cruz YIMBY. You should check it out on Facebook.”

Siroky, a 32-year-old who lives near Scotts Valley and works from home, first got the idea for the group from a friend in Seattle who’s involved with a “YIMBY” group there. YIMBY stands for “Yes, In My Backyard.”

YIMBY organizations have sprung up in San Francisco, New York City and Boulder, Colorado, each purporting to oppose the so-called “Not In My Backyard,” or “NIMBY,” camps. The local groups generally support new development and denser housing growth. The man behind Santa Cruz YIMBY is ready to go a step beyond the corridor rezoning for major thoroughfares, suggesting that even single-family residential neighborhoods could be “up-zoned” to allow denser housing in other areas.

Most of the public comment at Thursday’s meeting struck a different tone. Three speakers earlier, Brian Mayer—a longtime resident of Avalon Street, five blocks off Water Street—worried aloud that there isn’t any way to keep Santa Cruz affordable, no matter what. And if someone wants to live in Santa Cruz, they should find a way to make it work, even if it means going back for an extra degree.

“People shouldn’t live here if they don’t want it bad enough,” Mayer said. “They just shouldn’t be here. And the thing is we want to talk about compassion, compassion for the people who can afford it. What about the 65,000 people who live here?” Mayer’s words resonated with the crowd. Friends filed out of the chambers afterward, one by one, to shake his hand, hug him and thank him for speaking his mind.

In general, support in favor of the corridor update has, so far, been relatively quiet in public meetings. Gail Jack, one of the cofounders of Affordable Housing Now, likes the rezoning idea, although she concedes her task force hasn’t always put together a big showing on the issue. It’s easier to mobilize group members to speak out in favor of tighter Airbnb regulations, she says. (That’s an item that’s coming to the planning commission in late June.)

Jack is unfamiliar with YIMBYs, in Santa Cruz or anywhere else. But she’s intrigued by the idea and hopes to learn more, although she says Affordable Housing Now has never really made an effort to cater to young professionals. “Our focus is to have enough housing for people who live here and whose kids live here and who want to stay here,” Jack says. “And for workers who drive long hours—we can get them off the highway.”

Some Santa Cruzans still worry that by allowing for taller buildings—up to 65 feet high in some places—the rezone will send their home values plummeting, clog up heavily trafficked streets and block out the sun. But a few studies, including one from Harvard, have shown that new multi-family complexes don’t decrease nearby home values at all.

At their May 25 meeting, planning commissioners gave some notes to staffers on specific details. Each of the members, for instance, supported increasing the noticing radius for new projects on the corridors from 300 feet to 1,000 feet—an elevenfold increase in the number of postcards the city would send out. They also encouraged creating a design review board to look at the style and quality of projects. In large part, commissioners tiptoed around the hot-button issue, though, declining to take any hard stances for now.

The commission will keep looking at the corridor improvements line by line, through the summer at least, and the plan probably won’t reach the Santa Cruz City Council for about a year. One item that planning staffers do hope to send to the council before then is the rezoning of Pacific Avenue, south of Cathcart Street.

Those changes could pave the way for two symbiotic projects: METRO’s plan for a new bus station with housing on top of it and plans for a similar mixed-use project next door. The city’s already gearing up for that effort.

Mayor Cynthia Chase, who’s made housing a stated priority in her one-year term, spoke at the State of the City breakfast on Tuesday, May 23. The housing crisis became that morning’s recurring theme.

“I’ve talked to folks across this community who say that they own their homes, and then the next thing out of their mouth is, ‘But I could never buy my home now.’ That really demonstrates our challenge,” she said.

Chase called on residents and business owners to get involved on the issue. City Manager Martín Bernal took to the podium next, elaborating on the city’s housing approach, followed by Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb, who discussed the city’s economic strategies, as well as the METRO housing proposal, displaying a 2015 rendering of the idea.

The City Council has made housing one of its top priorities for the year, and included new units downtown as part of its calculus.

Although Jack supports corridor improvements, she says Affordable Housing Now will have to look at how much affordable housing the downtown projects promise before taking a stance.

Lipscomb tells GT that the plan is to make the entire METRO project affordable with a mix of income levels, including some workforce housing. It’s too early, though, for staffers to send out requests for proposals. Owen Lawlor, one of the developers on the adjacent property, says the team is still configuring the setup and housing breakdown. They’ll wait for the rezone before they submit any plans.

“We can’t support more development downtown if it doesn’t include affordable housing,” Jack says, “and not just apartments or condos, or whatever for the wealthy. That’s not going to do it for us.”

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